Expose yourself to new experiences that fully engage your senses and your brain will tell you you’re living a longer life

We’re all familiar with the notions of the seemingly endless summers of childhood or the way time slows down if we’re caught up in a car accident or some other potentially life-threatening situation.

But the really fascinating thing about these ideas is that they’re not actually illusions but instead are the direct result of how our brains process information.

The flip side of these phenomena is that time can seem to slide by faster and faster as we grow older and so much of what we do in our lives becomes familiar.

The good news is that the enthusiastic quest for new experiences is the perfect antidote, especially as we age. New experiences take more time for the brain to process, making time appear to last longer.

The steadily ticking clock may be how we organise our lives externally but it is not how our brains perceive time. When the brain receives information from our various senses, it doesn’t just pass it on to us in a jumble as it is received, it takes the time to reorganise it and deliver it to us in a way that we understand. The fact is that sensory information travels at different speeds. Sound travels slower than light and touch, taste and smell are slower still. The end result is that we live our lives fractions of a moment in the past but this is a compromise the brain is willing to make to ensure we can make sense of our world.

The result in terms of our perception of time, however, is that familiar information takes less time for the brain to process so time seems to move faster. Whereas new information is slower to process and this makes time feel elongated.

American neuroscientist David Eagleman is recognised for his work on time perception, brain plasticity, synesthesia and the emerging field of neurolaw.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman has extensively studied the effects of our brain’s perception of time and explains it as follows in a profile in the New Yorker written by Burkhard Bilger.

“Time is this rubbery thing,” Eagleman said. “It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.”

One of the seats of emotion and memory in the brain is the amygdala, Eagleman explained. When something threatens your life, this area seems to kick into overdrive, recording every last detail of the experience. The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last.

“This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,” Eagleman said — ­why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.

The best example of this is the so-called oddball effect—an optical illusion that Bilger reports that Eagleman had shown him in his lab.

“It consisted of a series of simple images flashing on a computer screen. Most of the time, the same picture was repeated again and again: a plain brown shoe. But every so often a flower would appear instead. To my mind, the change was a matter of timing as well as of content: the flower would stay onscreen much longer than the shoe. But Eagleman insisted that all the pictures appeared for the same length of time. The only difference was the degree of attention that I paid to them. The shoe, by its third or fourth appearance, barely made an impression. The flower, more rare, lingered and blossomed, like those childhood summers.”

We still have a lot to learn about the brain but if it’s true that new experiences can make our lives feel longer and richer, we should be saying “yes” as often as we can.

By Ted Gibbons